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The American Dream


The American dream, it has been said, means different things to different people. Differences in wealth and status affect the meaning of the dream for different people. Its meaning has also changed repeatedly over time. An eighteenth century, white, male plantation owner's answer to the question, "What is the American Dream?" would probably be different from that of a modern, female, black business woman. A common essence shines through these many aspects of the American dream. In this essential American dream can be seen three complementary facets- freedom from want, freedom from threat of physical danger, and freedom of choice.

The first aspect of the American dream is freedom from want. For the plantation owner, freedom from want might have meant owning more land and more slaves and building a bigger house. For the slave, the dream might simply have been eating decent food, wearing warm clothes, perhaps saving enough money to purchase his manumission. Toward the later part of the nineteenth century, the picture had changed. America had spread westward and had filled with immigrants from Asia and Europe. Those fortunate and industrious enough to do so were accumulating vast fortunes. Despite America's great wealth, freedom from basic want was still only a dream for the working poor. For them, the American Dream was to earn enough to free themselves from their employers and work toward making their own fortunes. Although not legally slaves, they often owed more to their employers for food and lodging than they could earn in wages. Whereas a hundred years ago, poor Americans struggled to get free of the company store; today, they struggle to free themselves from their credit cards. Today the relative condition of rich and poor is unchanged, however mobility between the two conditions has increased dramatically. For instance, the person struggling through the university system on a scholarship or her family's savings may have earned billions of dollars twenty years from now. By the same token, the unwary corporate executive may have been reduced to modest means by a change in the economy. For all of these Americans, a common facet of the dream is to have enough money to do as they wish, not as they must.

Freedom from threat of physical danger is the second facet of the American dream, because many have risked their safety to have freedom from want. In the eighteenth century, pioneers risked dangerous ocean voyages, illness and attack by Indians to travel to a new land where they could work toward their fortunes. As the country spread westward during the next century, not only did they fear attack by Indians, but from other pioneers as well. Population often out-distanced the protection offered by law and civilization. Nature too joined in the attack, with illness killing more settlers than attacks by Indians or lawless pioneers. But these pioneers dreamed big: forts and towns rose up, with the Cavalry for the Indians, with laws for the lawless, with physicians for the sick, and with the simple support of neighbor helping neighbor. Today the frontier no longer exists, but the inner city still resembles a wild western town. Americans no longer dream of safety from Indians, but of safety from their neighbors or from the bad people from the neighborhood down the road. For some, the dream is "if only one could move to the suburbs; things would be so much safer there." The dream of freedom from becoming ill without a physician to help has been replaced by the dream of being able to afford health insurance. For all Americans, safety from some threat or danger is a glimmering dream.

These two facets of the dream rely heavily on the freedom of choice. Yet, freedom of choice depends on the other two facets for its existence. The choices of the slave owner were very different from those of the slave, because of differences in wealth and physical safety. Despite this, both yearned for greater freedom from perceived constraints. Choices expanded in the nineteenth century with the opportunity to obtain free land opened up by westward expansion. While many were able to achieve considerable financial comfort and opportunity for choice, they had done so at great peril, wresting a nation from a hostile wilderness. Today one's freedom of choice is far less limited than ever before. The working poor can dream of university educations and professional careers. One's dreams can encompass not only "enough" and "safety" but the freedom to live anywhere. One can free oneself from one's creditors by filing bankruptcy if necessary. One need not worry about one's sleazy neighbors: one can buy a home security system.

These three facets combine in such a way as to mean freedom to rise to one's greatest potential. Once wealth and safety are assured, anything seems possible. The slave could become a land owner, working his own farm. The immigrant worker could one day own his own company. An unemployable welfare recipient may one day be elected President of the United States. It all begins with hope and the jewel of a dream.
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